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Whistler bear deaths a provincial anomaly

Two studies due to shed light on the human-bear relations

PULL QUOTE

"I’ve seen a progressive change in sub-adult bear behaviour."

–Michael Allen, Black Bear Project

So far this year, Whistler’s bear death toll stands at seven. With months to go before hibernation, that number could very well increase. Last year only one bear was destroyed.

More than 950 black bears are destroyed in B.C. annually. In the first six months of this year, conservation and RCMP officers destroyed a total of 164 "problem bears" in the province, according to Tiffany Akins, a public affairs officer with the Ministry of Land and Water Protection.

While this number represents a slight decrease from 2003 when 181 bears were destroyed across the province over the same period, it also suggests Whistler’s bear death toll could climb much higher before hibernation season.

Dan Dwyer, a senior conservation officer, ascertains that there is no pattern regarding the time of year when bears are most frequently destroyed.

"Our numbers show that it’s all over the map. There is no consistency because there are so many factors (bringing bears in contact with people) including food source, drought and fish runs," explains Dwyer.

For example, a prolific berry crop might attract bears, while a significant fish run would keep them by the rivers and away from residential areas.

The conservation officer sites first quarter figures (encompassing April, May and June) that show wildlife complaints for the South Coast region are up less that 1 per cent over last year.

By comparison, the Whistler Bear Society, The Black Bear Project and Squamish-based conservation officer Charlie Doyle have all experienced dramatic increases in the number of bear complaints each of their organizations have received. The conservation office has received more than 400 bear-related calls this year, up more than 25 per cent over last year. The Black Bear Project has received more than 700 calls.

Do these numbers reflect a specific problem of habituated bears, a population explosion or is there an environmental factor bringing the animals more frequently in contact with people?

"It’s too early to speculate," states Dwyer.

Dwyer describes the province’s black bear population as stable and quantifies it at 130,000.

Of the bears destroyed in Whistler this year: four bears were shot as a result of human/bear conflict; another two were victims of motor vehicle accidents (an addition two animals sustained unknown injuries as thy escaped into the forest after being hit); and a seventh bear, suffering from gunshot wounds, was destroyed for humane reasons.

Additionally there have been 11 bear relocations.

"Some of those relocations have been the same bear, and some of those have been later destroyed," says Sylvia Dolson, executive director of Whistler Bear Society.

She points out that management of residential garbage continues to be a problem as the easy food source is very attractive to bears.

"Bears will generally forage in a secure habitat. But if the rewards are worth it they’ll tolerate people – things like bird seed are definitely worth their effort," says Dolson.

She also sees the increase in tourist activity this summer as being partially responsible for the increase in human/bear conflicts.

"You get tourists purposely feeding the bear for photos or entertainment," she says. "We’ve had more tourism this summer. We’ve experienced more reports – and it’s nice weather days that generate the most reports."

Ascertaining that locals "know the drill" Dolson’s group and the Resort Municipality of Whistler have partnered to create more signage warning visitors of the hazards interacting with the wild animals. Another six sandwich boards similar to those placed in residential areas this year will be available to mark areas in the village where bears have been sighted. The signs will promote the five key points to bear safety.

Dolson is unsure of the population and if so how it would have impact the current climate of increased human/bear conflicts.

"It’s pretty difficult to draw conclusions without specific data," she says. "We’ll know a lot more once we see Michael Allen’s hair-trapping survey."

Allen, who heads the Black Bear Project, estimates Whistler’s bear population at approximately 100. And he sees the demographics of that population shifting.

"There’s been an increase in female bears because they have a high survival rate, males don’t," explains Allen.

Three of the bears killed in Whistler were mature, breeding males.

"In the past two years 41 cubs have been born, compared to 2002 when 12 cubs were born," says Allen. "And a lot of ‘baby boomer bears’, bears that are between five and 15 years old, are getting ready to start having a lot of cubs."

Female bears disengage from their cubs when the offspring are about 18 months old. Daughters stay within the mother’s territory, while males are chased out. Allen sees this behaviour manifesting in an increase in the number of young bears in the valley.

"I’ve seen a progressive change in sub-adult bear behaviour," maintains Allen.

To avoid conflict with dominant bears, sub-adults are moving into residential areas, staying where there are good sources of natural food supplemented by human food.

"I’m not saying cut down the huckleberry bushes in the back of your yard, because the bears need that," says Allen, adding that the single biggest bear attractant remains garbage.

"If people knew they were going to get a $500 fine if they left garbage out on their back porches it wouldn’t happen."

Allen has undertaken a study to determine the local bear population and its genealogies. Started in 2002, the $196,000 study is scheduled to carry on through 2010, with findings presented to stakeholder groups such as the Bear Working Group as they become available.

Allen will be presenting the initial genealogy findings of his study at Millennium Place on Sept. 17.

A second study that may provide clues as to the increase in bear activity, is the Bear Working Group’s own bear tolerance survey. The initial findings of that survey will be presented to the group Aug. 18. From there they will embark on a series of in depth, focus group interviews to further understand the community’s relationship to bears.




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